Much of northern Italy is accessible by public transportation, but to explore remote vineyards, ski resorts, and smaller towns on the lakes, a car will be very useful. In fact, one of the most common and convenient ways to take a tour of this area is to fly or take a train into, say, Milan, see the city, and then pick up a rental car to wend your way through whichever bit takes your fancy before ending up in Genoa, Venice, or Bologna (or Florence or Rome to the south), where you can drop off the car and fly home.
That said, driving in Italy is also notoriously nerve-racking -- for both the winding roads and the Italian penchant for driving a Fiat like a Ferrari. Both rental-car and gas prices are as high as they get in all of Europe. Before leaving home, you can apply for an International Driver's Permit from the American Automobile Association (AAA; tel. 800/222-1134 or 407/444-4300; www.aaa.com). In Canada, the permit is available from the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA; tel. 613/247-0117; www.caa.ca). In the U.K., contact the British Automobile Association (AA; tel. 0800/26-20-50; www.theaa.com). Technically, you need this permit, your actual driver's license, and an Italian translation of the latter (also available from AAA and CAA) to drive in Italy, though in practice your license itself often suffices. (Take all three along, to be safe.)
Italy's equivalent of AAA is the Automobile Club d'Italia (ACI), a branch of the Touring Club Italiano. They're the people who respond when you place an emergency call to tel. 803-116 for road breakdowns, though they do charge for this service if you're not a member. If you wish, you may join at the border as you're driving into Italy or at one of the club's regional offices (in Milan, Viale Scarca 336, tel. 02-661-271). You can also join online at www.aci.it.
Driving Rules -- Italian drivers aren't maniacs; they only appear to be. Actually, they tend to be very safe and alert drivers -- if much more aggressive than Americans are used to. If someone races up behind you and flashes his lights, that's the signal for you to slow down so he can pass you quickly and safely. Stay in the right lane on highways; the left is only for passing and for cars with large engines and the pedal to the metal. If you see someone in your rearview mirror speeding up with his hazard lights blinking, get out of the way because it means his Mercedes is opened up full throttle. On a two-lane road, the idiot passing someone in the opposing traffic who has swerved into your lane expects you to veer obligingly over into the shoulder so three lanes of traffic can fit -- he would do the same for you. (Plus, the alternative is not pretty.)
Autostrade are superhighways, denoted by green signs and a number prefaced with an A, like the A1 from Rome to Florence. A few aren't numbered and are simply called raccordo, a connecting road between two cities (such as Florence-Siena and Florence-Pisa). On longer stretches, autostrade often become toll roads. Strade Statale are state roads, usually two lanes wide, indicated by blue signs. Their route numbers are prefaced with an SS or an S, as in the SS222 from Florence to Siena. On signs, however, these official route numbers are used infrequently. Usually, you'll just see blue signs listing destinations by name with arrows pointing off in the appropriate directions. Even if it's just a few kilometers down on the road, often the town you're looking for won't be mentioned on the sign at the appropriate turnoff. It's impossible to predict which of all the towns that lie along a road will be the ones chosen to list on a particular sign. Sometimes the sign gives only the first minuscule village that lies past the turnoff, at other times it lists the first major town down that road, and some signs mention only the major city the road eventually leads to, even if it's hundreds of kilometers away. It pays to study the map before coming to an intersection.
The speed limit on roads in built-up areas around towns and cities is 50kmph (31 mph). On rural roads and the highway, it's 110kmph (68 mph), except on weekends, when it's upped to 130kmph (81 mph). Italians have an astounding disregard for these limits, mostly because the limits are enforced only if the offense is egregious. However, police can ticket you and collect the fine on the spot. The blood-alcohol limit in Italy is 0.05%, often achieved with just two drinks, but this, too, is not enforced as often as it is in northern Europe or North America. Clearly drunk drivers, however, can expect to be arrested.
As far as parcheggio (parking) is concerned, on streets, white lines indicate free public spaces and blue lines indicate pay public spaces. Meters don't line the sidewalk; rather, there's one machine on the block where you punch in how long you want to park. The machine spits out a ticket that you leave on your dashboard. Sometimes streets will have an attendant who'll come around and give you your time ticket (pay him or her when you get ready to leave). If you park in an area marked PARCHEGGIO DISCO ORARIO, root around in your rental car's glove compartment for a cardboard parking disc (or buy one at a gas station). With this device, you dial up the hour of your arrival (it's the honor system) and display it on your dashboard. You're allowed un ora (1 hr.) or due ore (2 hr.), according to the sign. Parking lots have ticket dispensers, but booths are not usually manned as you exit. Take your ticket with you when you park; when you return to the lot to get your car and leave, first visit the office or automated payment machine to exchange your ticket for a paid receipt that you then use to get through the automated exit.
Road Signs -- Here's a brief rundown of the road signs you'll most frequently encounter. A speed limit sign is a black number inside a red circle on a white background. The end of a speed zone is just black and white, with a black slash through the number. A red circle with a white background, a black arrow pointing down, and a red arrow pointing up means yield to oncoming traffic, while a point-down red-and-white triangle means yield ahead. In town, a simple white circle with a red border, or the words zona pedonale or zona traffico limitato, denotes a pedestrian zone (you can drive through only to drop off baggage at your hotel); a white arrow on a blue background is used for Italy's many one-way streets; a mostly red circle with a horizontal white slash means do not enter. Any image in black on a white background surrounded by a red circle means that image is not allowed (for instance, if the image is two cars next to each other, it means no passing; a motorcycle means no Harleys permitted, and so on). A circular sign in blue with a red circle-slash means no parking.
Gasoline -- Benzina (gas or petrol) is even more expensive in Italy than in the rest of Europe. Even a small rental car can guzzle about 60€ for a fill-up. There are many pull-in gas stations along major roads and on the outskirts of town, as well as 24-hour rest stops along the autostrada highways, but in towns most stations are small sidewalk gas stands where you parallel park to fill up. Almost all stations are closed for riposo and on Sundays, but the majority of them now have a pump fitted with a machine that accepts bills so you can self-service your tank at 3am. Unleaded gas is senza piombo.
Italy has one of the best train systems in Europe, especially the northern half, and even traveling on a regional level you'll find many destinations connected. Most lines are administered by the state-run Ferrovie dello Stato, or FS (tel. 892-021 for national train info, or 199-166-177 to buy tickets; www.trenitalia.com), but servicing the Casentino and western Valdichiana in Tuscany is a private line called LFI, and northern Umbria is serviced by the private FCU. About the only difference you'll notice is that these private lines don't honor special discount cards or passes.
Italian trains are about as clean and comfortable as commuter trains in the United States, which is to say, it really depends. Though increasingly trains are of the boring straight-through commuter variety, on long-haul runs especially you'll still be blessed with those old-fashioned cars made up of couchette compartments that seat only six or occasionally eight. First class (prima classe) is usually only a shade better than second class (seconda classe), with four to six seats per couchette instead of six to eight. The only real benefits of first class comes if (a) you're traveling overnight, in which case four berths per compartment are a lot more comfortable than six or (b) the train is overcrowded, and first-class gives you much more breathing space and legroom.
Few visitors are prepared for how crowded Italian trains can sometimes get, though you can count your blessings that, with the increase in automobile travel, they're not as crowded as they were in times gone by. An Italian train is full only when the corridors are packed solid and there are more than eight people sitting on their luggage in the little vestibules by the doors. Overcrowding is often a problem on Friday evenings, weekends, and holidays, especially in and out of big cities, or just after a strike. In summer the crowding escalates, and any train going toward a beach in August all but bulges like an overstuffed sausage.
Italian trains come in six varieties based on how often they stop. The Eurostar (ES) is the "pendulum" train that zips back and forth between Naples and Milan, stopping at Rome, Florence, and Bologna along the way, and there is also one that crosses northern Italy (described earlier). It's the fastest but most expensive option (first class only, a meal included); it has its own ticket window at the stations and requires a seat reservation. Other Eurostar/Eurocity (ES/EC, EN if it runs overnight) trains connect Italian cities with cities outside the country; these are the speediest of the standard trains, offering both first and second class and always requiring a supplement (except for Eurail passholders, though the conductors won't always believe you on this one); Intercity (IC) trains are similar to Eurocity trains in that they offer both first and second class and require a supplement, but they never cross an international border.
Of the regular trains that don't require supplements -- often called Regionale (R) if they stay within a region (Tuscany) or Interregionale (IR) if they don't (Tuscany to Umbria) -- the Espresso stops at all the major and most of the secondary stations, the Diretto stops at virtually every station, and the snail-paced Locale (sometimes laughingly called accelerato) frequently stops between stations in the middle of the countryside for no apparent reason.
When buying a regular ticket, ask for either andata (one-way) or andata e ritorno (round-trip). If the train you plan to take is an ES/EC or IC, ask for the ticket con supplemento rapido (with speed supplement) to avoid on-train penalty charges. On a trip under 200km (124 miles), your ticket is good to leave within the next 6 hours; over 200km, you have a full day. (This code isn't rigorously upheld by conductors, but don't push your luck.) On round-trip journeys of less than 250km (155 miles), the return ticket is valid only for 3 days. This distance-time correlation continues, with an extra day added to your limit for each 200km above 250km (the maximum is 6 days). If you board a regular train without a ticket (or board an IC/EC without the supplement), you'll have to pay a hefty "tax" on top of the ticket or supplement, which the conductor will sell you. Most conductors also get extremely crabby if you forget to stamp your ticket in the little yellow box on the platform before boarding the train.
Schedules for all lines running through a given station are printed on posters tacked up on the station wall. Binario (bin) means "track." You can also get official schedules (and more train information, some even in English) on the Web at www.ferroviedellostato.it.
Stations tend to be well run, with luggage storage facilities at all but the smallest and usually a good bar attached that serves surprisingly palatable food. If you pull into a dinky town with a shed-size or nonexistent station, find the nearest bar or tabacchi, and the man behind the counter will most likely sell you tickets.
Special Passes & Discounts -- To buy the Eurail Italy Pass, available only outside Italy and priced in U.S. dollars, contact Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com). You have 2 months in which to use the train a set number of days; the base number of days is 3, and you can add up to 7 more. For adults, the first-class pass costs $239, second class is $211. Additional days cost roughly $30 more for first class, $25 for second class. For youth tickets (25 and under), a 3-day pass is $171 and additional days about $20 each. Saver passes are available for groups of two to five people traveling together at all times, extending a discount of about $20 off an adult pass.
There are also Italy-Greece, Italy-Spain, and Italy-France combinations, in addition to a rail-and-drive pass. This is valid for 2 months, during which you can use 3 rail days and 2 car days (and add more car or rail days cheaply). Prices start at $398 for second-class tickets and an economy car. Fares vary depending on type of car.
When it comes to regular tickets, if you're under 26, you can buy at any Italian train station a 40€ Carta Verde (Green Card) that gets you a 10% discount for domestic trips and 25% on international connections on all FS tickets for 1 year. Present it each time you go to buy a ticket. A similar deal is available for anyone over 75 with the Carta d'Argento (Silver Card): 15% off domestic and 25% off international, for 30€. Children 11 and under always ride half-price (and can get the passes mentioned above at half-price), and kids under 4 ride free.
Although trains are quicker and easier, you can get just about anywhere through a network of dozens of local, provincial, and regional bus lines, but in northern Italy you'll mainly be using buses in the cities where there is no subway or, in the case of Venice, boat, available. Schedules in cities are posted in a little box on the pole of the large orange or yellow signs that demarcate the stops. Keep in mind that in smaller towns buses exist mainly to shuttle workers and schoolchildren, so the most runs are on weekdays, early in the morning, and usually again around lunchtime.
A town's bus stop is usually either the main piazza or, more often, a large square on the edge of town or the bend in the road just outside the main city gate. You should always try to find the local ticket vendor -- if there's no office, it's invariably the nearest newsstand or tabacchi (signaled by a sign with a white T), or occasionally a bar -- but you can usually also buy tickets on the bus. You can also flag a bus down as it passes on a country road, but try to find an official stop (a small sign tacked onto a telephone pole). Tell the driver where you're going and ask him courteously if he'll let you know when you need to get off. When he says "E la prossima fermata," that means yours is the next stop. "Posso scendere?" (Poh-so shen-dair-ay?) is "May I please get off?"
Northern Italy Bus Lines -- Unlike in central Italy and even the South, buses in northern Italy have limited appeal, as nearly every town is easily reached by train. Popular destinations for buses include hard-to-reach ski areas in the Alps and Dolomites, isolated towns in the Veneto, the Lakes Region (although it is a much prettier ride by boat), and beach resorts along the Ligurian coast.
Austostradale, with an office in Piazza Castello, Milan (tel. 166-845-010; www.autostradale.it), offers regular service to Aosta and to the Dolomite ski resorts of Madonna del Campiglio and Cortina d'Ampezzo. To move around the Dolomites, you can catch a bus from the unfortunately acronymed SAD company (tel. 0472-801-075; www.sad.it). To get to the Alpine resorts from Aosta, look for SAVDA buses (tel. 0165-841-397).
The Lakes Region is also best navigated by bus if you find the ferry schedule inconvenient. For towns on Lake Garda, contact SAIA (tel. 030-223-761) in Brescia or APT (tel. 045-800-4129) in Verona. For Lake Como, look for the blue SPT buses (tel. 031-304-744) in the center of any of the towns.
There is no shortage of local trains along the Ligurian coast (in fact, most trains stop in every small town, like it or not), but still a handful of companies operate bus service to popular destinations. One of them is Riviera Trasporti (tel. 0184-592-706; www.rivieratrasporti.it), which connects towns along the northern coast: San Remo, Imperia, Bordighera, and Ventimiglia.
In the Veneto, neither Bassano del Grappa nor Asolo is reachable by train. To get to Bassano, and then on to Asolo, you'll need to catch a FTV bus (tel. 0424-30-850; www.ftv.vi.it) in Vicenza.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.